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By Melissa MacNeal Susan Lyons Melissa Randall APHRODISIA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Judith Benedetto, what do you mean you won't come to Mazatlán for Christmas?"
Jude gazed longingly at the flat-screen monitor on her office desk. Why couldn't her mother stick with e-mail? That way, it was easier to say no. "Mama, you and I haven't done Christmas in eighteen years. I'm not about to start."
Silence at the other end.
Okay, she was a bitch for reminding her mother of the year they'd discovered the truth: The man Jude had called Daddy had another wife-a first and legal wife-and another daughter-an older and legitimate daughter. She and her mama were afterthoughts. Second-rate. Illegitimate.
Jude had been eight. That year, she'd realized there was no Santa Claus. And no Daddy. It was the last Christmas that had been celebrated in their house.
"I know, bella," Mama said gently. "That year was horrible. But I was wrong to let your father turn me into a cynic. I shouldn't have condemned Christmas."
"Oh, come on. It's a ridiculous, hypocritical, crassly commercial-"
"It doesn't have to be, Jude. Its essence is love. And now that I've found Manuel, my heart's full of love again."
Was this the same woman who'd slammed Christmas for years, using the very same words Jude had just been spouting when she'd been sorudely interrupted? The woman who'd been anti-male ever since "that jerk" deserted them? Jude had been shocked when her mama had returned from a holiday in Mexico last February saying she'd fallen in love with a restaurant owner. Stunned when the two had married last summer. Now she was utterly flabbergasted that her mother was buying into all that hokey shit about Christmas.
Still, she'd been raised to be polite. "I'm happy for you, Mama, and I do hope it works out for you and Manuel." She tried to keep cynicism out of her voice. Trusting a man was asking for heartbreak. "But my own luck with guys and Christmas sucks." When she'd finally let a man into her wounded heart, he'd run out on her, too.
"Then you need a good experience to replace the bad ones. Come join us for the holidays. We'll do all the special things from when you were a kid, plus Manuel's family traditions."
How could Mama sound so excited? The very thought of all those ridiculous decorations and hypocritical activities made Jude cringe. In fact, her chest ached like she had a raging case of heartburn. "Let's face it, Christmas is a crappy time for me. I hate it, and I'm absolutely not celebrating it. Gotta go. Love you." Firmly she hung up the phone and opened her desk drawer, looking for the bottle of antacid pills.
"So, Jude, guess this isn't the best time to make you draw a name for the Secret Santa?" The voice behind her made her spin around.
Karen, her colleague and friend, stood in the doorway holding a box covered in fancy Christmas paper. The kind of paper that had wrapped the gifts piled under the tree Jude and her mama used to decorate-sometimes with that jerk's assistance, more often on their own because he was away. Supposedly on business, but instead hanging out with his true family.
Jude swallowed a couple tablets and glared at the offending box. "This office does the Secret Santa thing? Barf. Not me."
Karen set the box atop a stack of files and shot her a steely gaze-or as steely as a pair of round blue eyes framed in blond ringlets could get. "You've been here six months, and you're making a great impression. The Arkins are into the holiday stuff. It'd be a career-limiting move to opt out."
Jude groaned. She loved her work-matching people to rewarding jobs-and had been lucky to get on at Headliners. It ranked as one of Vancouver's leading professional recruitment firms, aka headhunters.
It was also a family-owned company. Will Arkin was president, his daughter, Amanda, was vice president, his lawyer son, Bruce, handed legal and financial matters, and Bruce's wife, Olympia, was the office manager. They treated their employees almost like members of the family.
Jude liked their corporate culture-flexible work hours, support for employees with family responsibilities, offices in a renovated brick building in Yaletown rather than one of the huge office towers. So far, the only serious downside was this Christmas crap.
She could quit. Find another firm that was all about business and didn't expect employees to celebrate holidays together. But if she quit, it'd be kind of like letting him ruin her life all over again. "This is so unfair."
"Grinch. Is there anything you like about Christmas?"
"When it's over!" She resisted rubbing at the pain in her chest. Once upon a time she'd loved the season. But that was when she'd been a baby, naive enough to believe in St. Nick and other lies-like that her jerk father loved her and her mama.
"What do you do? Go to a movie alone? Nuke a frozen dinner?"
"As long as it's not turkey." Not wanting pity, Jude tried to joke. She'd gotten used to playing hermit at Christmas.
"I love turkey. Hey, come join Kris and me. Both our families are really into this stuff. There'll be all sorts of fun things happening."
Jude shuddered. "Thanks, but no, thanks." She'd met her friend's husband a couple times and liked him, but their idea of fun sounded like sheer hell to Jude. Over the years, other people had issued holiday invitations, but only those who'd learned to back off had remained friends. Jude's ex-fiancé wasn't one of them.
"You really want to spend the holiday alone?"
Wishing Karen would drop the subject, Jude tried for a humorous tone. "Well, I'd rather spend it having mind-stunning sex with a seriously hot guy, no strings attached. But I haven't met any of those lately."
"Yes, you have, if you'd just open your eyes."
Being betrayed first by your father and then your fiancé had a way of making a girl cynical. "It's only been a year since my ex bailed-a month before our wedding. It's way too soon to think about a relationship. Like, years too soon." Make that decades. Trusting a man again wasn't on her short-term or long-term to-do list.
"Jude, it's not fair to condemn all men-"
"Look, I'm drawing a name." It was the lesser evil, compared to hearing another lecture. "I'm being a good girl. Following the party line." Jude reached through the slot in the top of the box and pulled out a slip of paper. "Oh, great. Mildred in accounting. She's what-Olympia's aunt or something? And all of seventy, if she's a day. So tell me, Karen, what do I get Mildred for a Secret Santa gift?"
"I'll think about it. If I say so myself, I have a talent for finding the perfect gift."
"You're canceling Christmas?" Shocked, Nick Buchanan dropped the phone, and it fell into a pile of outdoor lights. Well, damn, his mom had gone and lost her mind.
"She's what?" Nick's younger brother, Kris, turned from the kitchen counter and gaped at him. Tall, dark, and rugged looking, just like Nick, Kris looked downright goofy in that Santa apron, his hands gucked up with shortbread dough.
Kris's wife, Karen, turned, too. She was blond and curvy and actually looked cute in an apron and dough-coated hands. "I thought Christmas was such a big deal with your family."
"It's an institution," Kris said grimly. "Tell Mom that, Nick."
"I know it is. So does she. God, maybe she's got Alzheimer's." For the Buchanans, the holiday season had always been filled with warmth and love, fun activities, every Christmas decoration you could imagine, and fantastic food. His mom did Christmas better than anyone in the world. And that included St. Nick and Kris Kringle, the guys he and his brother were named for.
Nick was spending a late November evening at his brother and sister-in-law's. Christmas carols played softly, a pot of mulled red wine simmered on the stove, and the rich, sweet smell of baking shortbread filled the air. He'd been untangling outdoor Christmas lights while Kris and Karen cut the second batch of dough into tree shapes. Being the only person with clean hands, he'd answered their phone when the call display showed his parents' number. Now he wished he hadn't. For his mom to cancel the holiday, something had to be seriously wrong.
He took a fortifying swallow from his mug of mulled wine and retrieved the phone.
She was yammering on, and he interrupted. "Mom, stop, I missed that. You lost me back at canceling Christmas. What's going on?"
"Good heavens, Nicky, how could you think for one moment we'd cancel Christmas?"
Damn, she'd lost her short-term memory. Gently he said, "You just said you and Dad are going away for the holidays." He sent a worried frown in the direction of Kris and Karen, who were still staring at him.
"You know how we've been saving for a tropical cruise?" his mom said. "Well, we found a fantastic last-minute deal. It leaves the middle of December."
Certifiably insane. She'd never trade Christmas for a cruise. "But-"
"Would you let me finish? Of course we'll do Christmas. You know it's my favorite time of year."
Now she thought she could be two places at once. "Mom, how can we do Christmas if you and Dad are in the middle of the ocean?" He took another slug of mulled wine.
"We'll move things up a couple weeks. I have it all worked out."
Hmmm. That sounded a little more rational. But Nick was a firefighter who worked ten- and fourteen-hour shifts-days, nights, and then a bunch of time off. He had enough seniority that he'd already arranged to be off for Christmas Eve day and Christmas. "My shifts at the fire hall are already set. I can't-"
"Of course I took your shifts into account," she said briskly. She always had a copy of his schedule stuck to the fridge. "Grab a pen and paper."
"Just a sec." Relieved, he put his hand over the receiver and said to Kris and Karen, "I think she's okay. Sounds like she has a plan."
The two of them went back to work as his mom dictated and he sat at the kitchen table scribbling notes. When Karen took the first sheets of baked shortbread out of the oven, he crooked his finger, asking for one, and she brought it over. "Don't burn your mouth," she whispered, but of course he did. Getting burned on the first shortbread was a holiday tradition.
When his mom hung up, Nick shook his head. "She sounds sane, but this is just plain weird."
"What's the deal?" Kris ladled himself a mug of wine and came to sit at the table.
Nick explained about the cruise. "She's moving everything up a couple weeks, with Christmas on the thirteenth. We'll get the tree and trim it this weekend, decorate the house ..." He shoved the schedule over to his brother.
Kris didn't even look at it. "That's screwed up. It won't feel like Christmas."
Karen slid the last cookie sheets into the oven and came over. "Would you two grow up? You'll still have a great family Christmas, and your parents will have a romantic cruise." She grinned broadly. "Hey, for once, Kris and I can please both families. We'll have a Buchanan Christmas and then a Locke one."
"Fine for you two," Nick grumbled. "What the hell am I going to do? I've got Christmas off." He'd never in his life been alone for the holidays. That wasn't what Christmas was all about, damnit.
"Hang out with us," Karen said. "My folks would love to have you."
Maybe being alone wasn't such a bad fate after all. "No, thanks. Your mom's always trying to matchmake me with your ditzy cousin."
She raised a brow. "If you'd find a girl, people would stop playing matchmaker."
"I have no problem finding girls," he protested. The nagging, teasing, and attempted fix ups had gotten especially bad since Kris, younger than him by a couple years, had married Karen two summers ago. Seemed it was some kind of sin for a younger brother to get hitched first. "But no way do I want to get married. I'm years away from that." Lots of women he'd dated were looking for a serious relationship, but none had even tempted him.
"You turn thirty this year."
Like he didn't know his own age. "If I'm not married by the time I'm turning forty, you can hassle me then." By then he'd probably be ready to settle down. He put on his jacket and picked up a string of lights. "Hey, Kris, we gonna put these things up?"
Chapter Two December was whacked this year, Nick thought. The last two weeks of faking Christmas-doing the normal stuff but at the wrong time-had been fun, but it hadn't felt right. And now it was all over. Christmas was over on December 14.
He couldn't be mad at his parents, though. At the send-off party on the cruise ship, they'd been as excited as kids at Disneyland. Trying to get in the mood, he'd drunk champagne and spiked eggnog, but each sip had made him feel emptier, so he'd stopped.
Now the ship would be passing under the Lions' Gate Bridge while his parents dressed for a fancy late dinner. And he was driving out of downtown Vancouver, heading for a strange woman's apartment in Kitsilano. He'd been sent by his sister-in-law on some crazy mission.
On the passenger seat of his Dakota 4x4 was an envelope Karen had said contained a Secret Santa gift for a friend at her office. He'd asked why she couldn't give it to this Jude person at work tomorrow, but she'd said it had to be delivered to the door. And she couldn't do it herself, because she and Kris had special plans-wink, wink.
Fact was, Nick wasn't in any rush to go home and be alone, so he'd agreed.
This was the start of a few days off work. It would be a while before he'd be back at the fire hall, hanging out with his second family. At any other time of year, being alone wouldn't have made him think twice. But now everyone was gift shopping, caroling, wrapping presents, baking cookies with their families. And for him that stuff was over for the year.
God, he was pitiful. Time to get a life. Tomorrow was Friday. In the evening he'd go to the Players Chophouse down by BC Place and check out the women. It'd be nice to find someone fun to share the season with. Somewhere there had to be a great girl who didn't give a damn about getting a diamond ring on her finger.
Glad to have a plan, he concentrated on finding the address Karen had given him. The big brown house with cream trim had probably once been a family home, but now it was divided into two apartments. He walked up the steps and pressed the buzzer for the door bearing Jude's number.
An overhead light came on, and the door eased open an inch or two, held in place by a chain. A slice of female face peered through the gap. "Yes?"
"Jude Benedetto? I'm Nick Buchanan. Karen's brother-in-law. She sent me over."
Brown eyes narrowed below well-shaped black eyebrows. "Why?"
He held out the envelope. "To deliver your Secret Santa gift."
Her eyes squeezed shut, as though she was annoyed or in pain. "I keep telling her I'm not into that stuff."
"Uh ... you don't like presents?" He raised his eyebrows. This was one unusual woman.
Her eyes opened again, and she gave a wry smile. "Sorry, Nick. You don't deserve to get caught in the middle. Thanks for playing messenger. Give me the gift, and you can go home."
He liked her voice. Low and musical, threaded with a touch of humor. Nick bit his lip, guessing he was going to piss her off again. "Karen said I had to hang around while you opened it."
"What? Oh, good god." She shook her head and then closed the door.
What was he supposed to do now? But then he heard the rattle of a chain, and the door opened-wide this time.
"It's cold," she said. "You might as well come in."
"Thanks." As he stepped inside and she closed the door, he stared at her. Man, Jude was something else. A tumbled mess of shiny black hair down past her shoulders. Olive-toned skin and striking features to go with her Italian surname. A build that was tall and shapely, shown off by jeans and a long-sleeved turtle-necked T-shirt the cinnamon-nutmeg color of mulling spices. Same color as her eyes, he realized as she stood in front of him and tilted her head inquiringly.
Attraction sparked through him, putting every cell-and especially the ones in his cock-on the alert.
<%TOC%> Contents Unwrap Me Susan Lyons....................1
Excerpted from Unwrap Me by Melissa MacNeal Susan Lyons Melissa Randall
Copyright © 2008 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Naughty Noelle Melissa MacNeal....................109
All She Craves for Christmas Melissa Randall....................237